In the corner of the ballet studio, Lorel Leal plays her rendition of the Super Mario Brothers’ theme song.
Her head bends towards the keys, hair falling between her focused eyes and the piano. The music stand lies empty; she reads the notes within her mind.
Her fingers are dancing on a grand piano, hitting and leaping over 88 keys of a black and white geography.
Leal is a unique pianist, and not just because of her impeccable playing.
Despite being diagnosed with hearing impairments at the age of four, Leal is an accompanist for Alberta Ballet, one of the leading training institutions in Canada and a mom of two.
“It’s an art, it’s not just a piano player ... My job is to make sure other people are awesome. If I do my job great enough, you won’t really notice me, they’ll [the dancers] just look really good,” says Leal.
“I have to pick the right tempo, the right qualities. The music needs to be light when they’re jumping – to be strong when there’s a big jump, but it can’t be heavy because then they don’t get off the floor,” she adds.
A native Calgarian, Leal has performed with the Heritage Christian Academy Senior Choir in Chicago, Orlando, Seattle, the Netherlands, Amsterdam and Disneyland.
“When you’re accompanying, you need to be a smart piano player. For singers, the right notes. For dancers, the right accent, the right rhythms, the right speed.”
Much like Wonderland was to Alice, Leal says piano is her escape from reality. “It was instinctively natural for me.”
“Music is a language. I like to play music that speaks to people,” Leal explains. “If the music can make someone else feel something – if it makes them want to move, if it makes them want to dance, if it brings a smile to their face, then I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do.”
Born to two musical parents, Leal’s musical skills were apparent even at a young age.
“She had an ear for music. Many people commented on her amazing level of self-confidence and pitch control,” Ivy Plett, Leal’s mother, describes.
Despite her musical talents, Leal's parents suspected a hearing impairment when their daughter was four. Plett had been babysitting for neighbours when she realized Leal could not hear her call while the other children could.
Leal’s diagnosis revealed she had mild to moderate hearing impairments. Her hearing loss affected the volume of sounds she could hear.
“Of course, subsequent hearing tests confirmed this. Our home was generally quiet ... which explains why we did not suspect any hearing loss until we were able to compare her responses to sound with other children’s,” says Plett.
But Leal’s mother was never concerned about her future in music because her passion never waned.
“I think Lorel’s strong sense of determination and drive is partially genetic – guilty by association,” Plett remarks. “She refused to allow the physical difficulties immobilize her.”
A jack of all trades, ranging from xylophone to trumpet to guitar, Leal’s affection resonated most strongly with the piano.
“She would gravitate to the piano and ‘play’ [pretend] quite often,” recounts Plett. “As an older child, I learned that her ‘I can do it myself’ attitude meant that I could only offer musical advice when asked.”
In her grade eight year, Leal’s family made the decision to pull her out of public school after certain issues arose.
Born with congenital hip dysplasia and developing hearing impairments at the age of four, Leal's life hasn't been easy.
“It’s painful to walk, to run, to go shopping — anything standing is painful, and the school that I was going to was all about physical activity which, of course, I couldn’t excel at,” says Leal.
Aside from her disabilities, Leal was often bullied. “People were so mean to me that I just had no self-worth anymore,” she adds. “There was a lot of tears.”
But Leal let nothing stand in the way of her love for music.
“Just because I wear hearing aids and have hip issues, that shouldn’t mean that I can’t conquer the world,” she says. “It just means that I have to be selective about what I do so that I can succeed at it.”
“Just because I wear hearing aids and have hip issues, that shouldn’t mean that I can’t conquer the world ... It just means that I have to be selective about what I do so that I can succeed at it.” - Lorel Leal
Although there were drawbacks to attending school at home, Leal relished the opportunity to practice her music.
“I loved it. I’m an independent worker. I had no problems working on my own and doing well — I totally excelled at home schooling,” says Leal. “It gave us so much time to do other stuff.”
Leal started formal piano lessons with a professional teacher in January of her grade eight year. By age 16, she was playing for weddings and church choirs.
Eventually, these performances led her to the Alberta Ballet.
In 2006, Leal was discovered by Edmund Stripe, director of the School of Alberta Ballet, at the time Leal had been working in Winnipeg as an accompanist for a school choir.
“The Alberta Ballet company came to do a show. They needed a piano player to play their company class,” says Leal.
She adds, “My supervisor at the school said I should do it, so I went to the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall, and there was Edmund ... He saw potential.”
According to Stripe, the accompanist’s art is a lot more complex than it may look at first sight.
“Lorel's music is an inspiration to the dancers and teachers alike,” says Stripe. “Music is a vital ingredient in ballet. It brings to life the rhythms, tempos, and musical styles envisioned by the teacher or choreographer. The accompanist can make or break a ballet class.”
Although Leal leads a flexible schedule because of her career, she says her sons, Tobias and Matias, are the not-so-flexible maestros of her show.
“If I can’t learn a piece in 45 minutes, it might not happen. Before the children, I could learn a song in typically three hours or less, depending on how hard it is.”
Despite her busy days, Leal is balancing her passion for work with the joy of raising her two young sons. Her secret to management is the support she receives at home.
“My mother comes to my house and watches my children while I do my job. My husband will grab the kids and go to the playroom ... so I can teach piano in the house,” says Leal. “That’s a lot of support.”
Though Leal is grateful for her family when her days are crazy, Leal believes she is not defined by her disabilities and that nothing should ever stand in the way of one’s dreams.
“You can do anything, but you really have to be smart to figure out the loopholes.”
- By Sam Nar